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Politics

Judge and Deacon Stephanos Bibas Speaks Exclusively to TNH

December 24, 2020

BOSTON – Stephanos Bibas, a Federal Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Federal Judge who serves on the United States Court of Appeals and rejected the Trump campaign's effort to overturn a state's election results, in an exclusive interview for The National Herald spoke about his Hellenic descent, his parents, his upbringing, his legal advancement and his divine calling to be ordained as Deacon.

The Honorable judge Stephanos Bibas, a first generation Greek-American, is also a respected ordained Deacon of the Orthodox Church since 2015 as TNH reported on December.

He serves on Sundays and major Feast days at the Orthodox Church of Saint Elizabeth the New-Martyr in Central New Jersey, a Mission Parish of the Diocese of Eastern America and New York of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, also known as ROCOR.

Fr. Stephanos Bibas spoke to us on all issues except the court decision regarding the elections because it is prohibited by legal rules and ethics, which we fully respected and did not ask him any related questions.

The full interview follows:

The National Herald: Let us start with your origin. What part of Greece did your parents come from?

Fr. Stephanos Bibas: My father, Haritos, was born in Piraeus. His family comes from Kythera, so during World War II his mother took him and my aunt and uncle back to Kythera in a small, leaky boat. He joined the merchant marines, sailed around the world, and came to the United States just over sixty years ago. He started off in Boston before moving to New York. For a while, he worked as a stylist in a beauty salon, where he met my mother. Her father came from Ammochosto (Famagusta) in Cyprus; her mother’s father came from Kythera.

After they were married, Dad worked in a donut shop and then opened a series of restaurants, first in the New York City area and later in Houston. One of them, in Times Square, was named after me: Stephanos.

I’m the eldest of three boys. My middle brother is a businessman in southern California, married with three children. My youngest brother is a tax accountant living outside of Boston, also married. I’ve been married to my wife for more than fifteen years. We have four children: two boys and two girls.

TNH: Did you speak Greek at home?

SB: Unfortunately, no. My mom was born here and didn’t grow up speaking Greek, so she couldn’t teach me. My dad taught me to read out the letters in the Greek newspaper on his knee when I was 2 ½, but I never learned much vocabulary. My yiayia taught me “please,” “thank you,” “good morning,” “French fries,” and the like. But it wasn’t until I went to college that I studied Greek and learned much more.

TNH: What do you remember most growing up in a Greek home?

SB: I remember getting together with extended family for big meals and working with them at one of our family’s restaurants. Of course, like so many Greek-American kids, I grew up in and around the family restaurants. When I was in elementary school, Dad got a summer concession selling hot dogs and hamburgers at a beach on a state park, so for five years we all got together and worked there. It was a great education in hard work, teamwork, and customer service.

TNH: What attracted you to Law?

SB: Like many Greeks, I loved to argue around the dinner table, and I was a good debater and public speaker through high school, college, and law school. When I went to law school, making good arguments and tearing apart bad ones came naturally to me.

TNH: What attracted you to Theology?

SB: Though of course I was baptized as a baby, I wasn’t raised in the Church. One of the problems was that I didn’t speak Greek, so it was literally Greek to me, as they say. It wasn’t until I got to college that I even realized there were other Orthodox besides Greeks (Russians, Serbs, Romanians, Lebanese, Georgians, and so on).

At the end of college, I first discovered Orthodox services in English and they made sense to me. So I started reading more, and once I was a practicing lawyer I started going to Church more, keeping the fasts, and then a friend got me to visit a monastery. Then, when I left being a prosecutor and was about to become a professor, I took five months and visited monasteries around America (including St. Anthony’s), Greece (Mt. Athos, Meteora, Ossios Loukas), the Holy Land, and St. Catherine’s in Sinai. It was beautiful and twice I considered the monastic life, but I felt called to return to the world and use my legal talents and training.

So I became a law professor. In between jobs, as I was about to move to the University of Pennsylvania, I took a year off and studied at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.

TNH: When did you receive the Divine calling to the Holy Priesthood?

SB: I’ve never wanted to be a priest. But I admire my patron saint, St. Stephen the Protomartyr and Archdeacon, and thought I might be able to serve the Church as a deacon, assisting the priest. Once my second son was old enough to serve in the altar with me, I was ordained to the Holy Diaconate in 2015.

TNH: Are you going to get ordained to the Presbytery or you will remain in the Diaconate permanently?

SB: Only God knows these things, but I have no desire to be a priest. In fact, it’s quite unusual even to be a deacon and work in a position of civil authority. But after multiple people approached me about becoming a judge, I discussed the matter with my spiritual father and my bishop, and they agreed that if God willed it and was opening this door, I should not turn aside from being called to become a judge.

As a busy judge, I can’t devote the time that a parish priest ought to spend with his flock. I also doubt I have the other gifts that a parish priest needs to have, like advising people in confession and managing the range of personalities in a parish. There aren’t many deacons in America; all the pressure is to move up to being a parish priest, serving a parish and earning a salary. I’m blessed that as a deacon, I can serve the Church without pay, assist the priest, and still serve my country.

TNH: Why did you choose to be ordained a Deacon in the ROCOR Denomination and not in the Greek-Orthodox Archdiocese since your cultural and ecclesial upbringing was Greek?

SB: Good question. There are a couple of reasons. The first is that I am not fluent in Greek and my wife doesn’t speak any Greek (she is an American who converted to Orthodoxy before we met, after she lived in Russia). Unfortunately, in the Northeast United States, most Greek parishes use all or mostly Greek in the divine services. Once I experienced the services in my native tongue, they made far more sense to me.

Also, I fell in love with the more traditional way that the divine services are served in monasteries like those on Mount Athos: people stand for all or most of the service, there are no organs or pews, and the services are uncut. I do, however, miss Byzantine chant, and I enjoy visiting Greek monasteries like Elder Ephraim’s monasteries.

I also pray that the divisions that have grown up between the Greek and Russian churches over Ukraine will be healed soon by a council, because we are all brothers in Christ and need to be united in love as we confront the post-Christian modern world. Of course, the bishops have their differences of opinion. But by God’s grace I pray that they can discuss them and work them out as brothers.

TNH: How do you see religion in a post-modern world?

SB: People are searching for meaning in their lives, but they are missing the true source of meaning: Christ. Our job may not be to preach at the top of our lungs, but to live faithfully and draw people who sense how empty a material life can be. As St. Seraphim of Sarov famously said: “Acquire a spirit of peace and thousands around you will find their salvation.” It is unfortunate that people are so divided and angry over the many problems that face our society, instead of joining arms and coming together in a spirit of Christian love and unity. We have to stop viewing one another as enemies and understand that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God.

TNH: How easy or how difficult it is to combine your position as judge and as an Orthodox Deacon?

SB: Thank God, it works out. I’m usually able to take off the major holy days, or at least to go to liturgy and then go to work. I’ve turned a small closet in my office into an icon corner and pray there alone before starting work each day. And I have a prayer for our nation on my wall that I read before each court session.

Of course, my job as a judge is to do earthly justice, to follow the law rather than twist it into what I think is right. But so much of what matters is not what we do so much as how we do it. Many people who come to court are bitter, angry, tired, afraid, stressed, or even mentally ill. Some of them are annoying. Very often we have to rule against them. But I can pray for them and do my best to treat them all with dignity and respect. Plus, the job of a deacon is to serve, and that helps to keep me humble. It’s not a good thing to be proud of holding an exalted office – like a deacon, a judge must focus on serving his country, not on himself.

TNH: Do you have ties in the Greek American Community?

SB: Yes. My kids go to Greek school at the local Greek church and I have many Greek friends and family.

TNH: Do you visit Greece often?

SB: Yes, I still have friends and family there. I try to go every several years, especially now that the kids are in school. A year and a half ago, we visited Kalavryta, Athens, and Aegina, where we got to venerate St. Nektarios’s relics. My family loved the trip, and I hope we can go back in a year or two.

TNH: Do you speak Greek?

SB: I can speak basic Greek but am not fluent and make grammatical errors. My yiayia never taught me how to discuss the law, my job, or other things like that. When I spent a month on Mount Athos in 2000, I had to learn more Greek to be able to make confession and get by. But I hope my kids will learn more Greek than I did. I’m glad they will also be learning ancient Greek in high school.

TNH: Can you read the Gospel and the Fathers of the Church in their original Greek?

SB: With the help of an interlinear version or parallel text, I can read a lot of the Gospels, but alas my Greek isn’t good enough to follow the Church Fathers except in translation.

TNH: How do you feel about your Greek-American identity?

SB: When I was a kid, I was sort of embarrassed about having a funny name and a father who spoke with a funny accent. So for a long time I Anglicized my name to Steven or Steve. But when I grew up and spent more time in Greece, I learned to be proud of my heritage and resumed using my full name. After all, I’m named after my papou and am proud to bear his name.

TNH: Where do you find meaning in life?

SB: For many years, I sought meaning it in career accomplishments. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve seen more and more how much meaning we find in union with Christ and with our families and church families. I hope that I can teach my children and others that abiding faith and love.

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